It’s almost a certainty that Apple has removed the standard headphone jack from the next iPhone, which will be announced in a matter of weeks. The new phone will deliver sound through the Lightning port at the bottom of the phone, or via Bluetooth to wireless headphones. These are both digital outputs; the analog output of the headphone jack is probably gone for good.
This is good and bad. The end-to-end digital audio stack will allow for higher quality audio and some new features, but it’ll also open the door for increased DRM control over music content by the record labels that own it.
“If Apple creates a circumstance where the only way to get audio off its products is through an interface that is DRM-capable, they’d be heartbreakingly naive in assuming that this wouldn’t give rise to demands for DRM,” Electronic Frontier Foundation special advisor Cory Doctorow told Fast Company in an email exchange Monday.
If a consumer or some third-party tech company used the music in way the rights holders didn’t like, the rights holders could invoke the anti-circumvention law written in Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) did not respond to a request for comment.
Steve Jobs famously convinced the record industry to remove the DRM from music on iTunes; is there really any reason to believe the industry might suddenly become interested in DRM again if the iPhone audio goes all digital?
“Yes—for streaming audio services,” Doctorow says. “I think it is inevitable that rights holder groups will try to prevent recording, retransmission, etc.” Today it’s easy to record streamed music from the analog headphone jack on the phone, and even to convert the stream back to digital and transmit it in real time to someone else. With a digital stream it might not be nearly so easy, or risk-free.
Doctorow says record-industry consortia could gather to make “standards” for DRM-locked audio, as the movie and TV companies have done (with Apple’s cooperation) at the W3C. Such standards would let big tech companies (like Apple) interoperate with the music catalogs of the big record industry players.
But it might prevent smaller upstart tech companies from doing so. “It would prevent upstarts making new, revolutionary technology from entering the market, because all the audio would be locked with DRM,” Doctorow says, “so entering the fold would mean toeing the line, or risking DMCA prosecution.”
He adds: “I believe that Apple will not be the last company to come up with cool ways to experience, organize, and acquire music. It’s natural that Apple would go along with initiatives that would stop the next Apple from launching the next iTunes, because every pirate wants to be an admiral.”
Apple—or any phone maker going all-digital with audio—could reassure consumers by expressing a legal opinion that its audio interface is “not an effective means of access control” under DMCA 1201 and laws like it.” It would, in effect, waive its option of invoking DMCA 1201 “no matter what pressures it faced,” Doctorow said.
Jared Newman wisely points out that there’s nothing new about digital audio connections from phones. Apple’s Lightning and older 30-pin connector use digital connections for speaker docks and other accessories, Newman says, and USB speakers and headphones have been available for over a decade. And so far nobody’s rushed into to impose new controls on usage.
Bluetooth connections are also digital. The difference is that an analog output had always existed alongside those digital channels, and now that analog channel—the headphone jack—is going away. If there’s only one road leaving a major recreation area, you might be more tempted to put a toll on it.
The record companies might not be the only ones to worry about. From a legal point of view, Apple (or some other phone maker) could take advantage of an all-digital audio stack to impose competitive controls over other tech companies.
“There’s the possibility that it could invoke anti-circumvention law to prevent competitors from introducing compatible products,” Doctorow says. In this case, it could give Apple control over which kinds of headphones are compatible with the iPhone’s audio software.
It could extend beyond headphones. Doctorow: “For example, they could say, ‘Your audio mixer will only be able to decrypt our audio if you sign a contract promising not to allow any outputs on [the mixer] that we don’t control, including analog audio outputs’.”
“It could even do nakedly anti-competitive things, like say: ‘If your device supports audio from an Apple device, it must not accept audio from a rival device from Amazon or Samsung’,” Doctorow says.
To be clear, Doctorow is simply describing the possible consequences of the removal of the analog jack from phones like the iPhone. Apple is, in a technical-legal sense, opening a door; whether it walks through it or not remains to be seen.
And Apple certainly won’t be the only company with an analog-free phone. In fact it’s not even the first—Lenovo announced its Moto Z and Z Force phones, neither of which have analog jacks. For its part, the headphone industry, led by companies like Audeze and Bose, is gravitating toward headphones that plug into a USB-C or Lightning port, or are wireless.
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